Essay, Research Paper: Modest Proposal 

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Criticisms in Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ A satire is a literary
work in which human foolishness and vice are criticized. Satire employs humor
and wit to ridicule human institutions or humanity itself, in order that they
might be remodeled or improved (Random House). A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan
Swift is a prime example of a satire. Throughout the piece it is difficult to
know exactly whom and what Swift is criticizing. This is because Swift
criticizes three groups of people and uses metaphors to make the satire work.
Swift ridicules the English for economically oppressing the Irish, the Irish for
being passive and allowing the English to oppress them, and the reader of the
piece for representing all the wrong doings in society. Many of the images that
Swift paints for the reader are images that he witnessed firsthand while he was
in Ireland. He was able to feel what the people were going through and he put
that feeling into his work. The main group of people that Jonathan Swift indicts
is the English. Swift blames the English for creating the environment that the
Irish are living in. He witnessed the Irish people living in poverty while their
absentee landlords were acquiring great wealth. “The poor tenants will have
something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to distress and
help to pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized,
and money a thing unknown” (Swift). Swift illustrates how the British
politicians were making laws, to govern the Irish, from afar. Rather than
directly accusing the English of economically oppressing the Irish, Swift
implies it. He uses metaphors to convey his thoughts. The entire and
significantly horrible idea of cannibalism is a metaphor that Swift uses. The
British felt that the laws that they were passing were good and just laws, when
in actuality all they were doing was making the landlords gain more wealth. “I
grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords;
who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best
Title to the Children” (Swift). This is an example of the distancing effect
that Swift puts on the metaphor. He distances the reader from the actual
feelings that he should be experiencing. The vocabulary that Swift employees,
forces the reader to focus on economic opportunities rather than the necessities
of the poor. In the same way that Swift felt the English had been doing all
along. Using the word “devoured” is very powerful and it goes beyond the
ordinary language associated with economics. It demands that the reader
interpret the text in the manner that Swift has decided he should. The cruelty
of the text continues on throughout the quote. This reader is shocked by the
violence that is created by the economic situation. It makes the landlords
appear as if they are actually devouring their tenants rather than protecting
them. By using language Swift is able to go a step further and create double
meanings out of the words. For example in the last quote from the proposal, the
word “dear” can be taken two ways. The first meaning, as it appears, a
precious thing. The second meaning of the word dear can be taken as a key to the
value of money, something the English keep taking from the Irish. By selling the
children, economic gains can be made to profit the English and Irish alike.
Swift choose his word carefully in order to convey what he witnessed in Ireland.
The English were devouring the Irish and sending them into devastating depths of
poverty. The second party that Swift criticizes is the Irish. By saying that the
Irish can sell their children on the market for money implies two things: One
that the English have oppressed them beyond a limit of rationality and two that
the Irish are letting the English take advantage of them. Swift paints the Irish
as a group of pushovers that would sell their children for money rather than
stand up for their rights. Swift makes the point that the Irish have been so
harmed by the laws that they take more care in their livestock than their
families. Swift indicts the Irish when he says that if the children were put to
market, men would treat wives with more respect and child would have better
care. “We should see an honest emulation among the married women, which of
them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of
their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they are now of their mares in
foal, their cows in calf, their sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to
beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage”
(Swift). This example shows how the Irish were passively allowing the English to
oppress them. By taking more care of their livestock then their families, the
Irish played the game that the English wanted them to. If a man were to put more
effort into his wife and children than his animals, he would not be able to make
enough money to satisfy the government. Swift wanted the people to see what was
going on. He wanted them to wake up. Swift was making the point that the Irish
did not stand up to the government, thus allowing the English to continue doing
what they were doing. The third party that Swift indicts is the reader. As the
piece begins the reader will soon become aware of the problem that the Irish
face, poverty. The readers are forced to make a moral decision on the matter.
Swift highlights that a changes need to be made in order for the problems to be
taken care of. “I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious
number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their
mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of
the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could
find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful
members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his
statue set up for a preserver of the nation” (Swift). This demonstrates a
central theme in any satire. The way that Swift connects the reader to the
problem puts the reader in a state of unease. It bothers the reader for example
when they get to the long list of advantages that come from Swift’s proposal.
The list continues on long after the reader has accepted the fact that it should
never have began. “For first, as I have already observed, it would lessen the
number of papists… Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable
of their own…Thirdly…the nation’s stock will be thereby increased fifty
thousand pounds per annum…Fourthly…constant breeders…will be rid of the
charge of maintaining them after the first year…Fifthly, This food would bring
great custom to taverns…Sixthly, this would be a great inducement to
marriage…” (Swift). The state of unease that Swift puts the reader into is
the result of pure guilt. The reader begins to understand that they are somewhat
accountable for the problems that the Irish face. The reader understands that he
has quietly sat back and let the English establish laws that oppress the Irish.
Swift says it is inhumane to let fellow humans be treated in the manner that the
English treated the Irish. Jonathan Swift has a knack for making others feel
uncomfortable. In much of his work he was able to make the readers uneasy. Using
his wittiness and creativeness, Swift makes his readers face their “moral
inadequacies” (Norton). “He actually compels us to enjoy the process of
being brought to such awareness” (Norton). The literary gifts that Swift has
make him an effective satirical writer. He has a way of making the most extreme
statements appear disguised in the abstraction of metaphor. Using his ability he
is able to indict the English for economically oppressing the Irish, the Irish
for allowing the English to oppress them, and the readers for letting members of
their race be taken advantage of in A Modest Proposal.

1. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, vol. 2. (New York: W.W. Norton
& Company, 1995) 427-430, 483-489. 2. Swift, Jonathan, A Modest Proposal,
published in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, vol.2 (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 1995) 483-489. 3. Webster’s College Dictionary, 3rd ed.
(New York: Random House, 1995) 1193
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